With her voice long hardened from smoking Kent cigarettes, she spat out commands and insults that tore at your heart. I guess my father left before there was nothing left of his.
Children are victims of their parents circumstances, more often than not. The leaving between their parents feels more like abandonment of them, particularly when left behind with the domineering person one parent fled. I love a good southern fiction, and the willows will weep for Birddog Harlin, whose own mother has endured a rage that hardened her when her own father fled her mother’s meanness long ago. A slamming door echoes through the decades, turning a little girl into a hard woman who doesn’t have empathy for her own child, Birddog.
Birddog is nothing but a disappointment to her mother, protected by her beloved older brother Denny ( who seems to give the only scrap of niceness in her life), more often than not she is dodging her rival, other brother Caul’s inborn meanness. Naturally the boys can do no wrong; the sun rises upon their shoulders, Denny’s in particular. Birddog adds to her mothers worries, fighting with boys, often covered in mud, her messiness the reason her mother can’t invite respectable ladies over for tea. Nothing like her beautiful mother, who her father admires so, despite her disappointment with the meager life his job as a miner gives them. Certainly not the low down job she ever wants her boys to do. Her adult life is just as tough as her youth was, slaving all day with chores, feeding her family, raising an impossible, disobedient, little girl are just some of the complaints that fill the air between she and her husband. Birddog knows her father feels shamed by her mother, but at some point her rage will always turn to her instead. When he defends his daughter Birddog it only strengthens her wrath.
Her mother wants nothing more than to enjoy tea with the ‘refined ladies’ of the town, just another thing a miner’s pay will never afford her. Worse, the gossip she is positive her shameless daughter inspires with her unladylike behavior makes that an impossibility. Birddog knows the truth of how things stand, as well as her father does. That just they don’t even exist in the eyes of polite society. If not for Daddy’s intervention, life would be nothing but darkness. Mother’s desire for better makes it impossible to feel and see just how much her husband adores her, and after a tragic turn of events, it’s too late to change things.
Weighted down by a deep blanket of grief, the children now have to step into adult decisions to keep the family afloat. Choices narrow for Denny as steps into his father’s shoes, Birddog’s mother is still jealous of the bond she had with her father, and a parting gift seals the distance between them. Caul comes into his own and seems to sail further from them, everything changes and mother fears all her children leaving. On the same breath, afraid of being left alone, she rips into Birddog- who still can’t live up to the sort of daughter she desires. Laziness won’t be tolerated, and soon Birddog is forced to take a job working for Ms. Tarmar who will teach her more than sewing, share her wisdom with her and have more room for compassion than her own mother.
Love finds her older brother Denny, and it finds Birddog too. Nothing is more doomed than forbidden love, as she will soon learn when she meets a caretaker named Samuel and his sweet, childlike brother Diggs. If only one could love away from the eyes of their ‘own kind’. This is another shame she’ll bring upon her family, and no one will forgive it. For a time, this man will open her eyes and heart to genuine love and kindness. But as he tells her, “there ain’t no place for that kind of love in this kind of world.” They don’t know how true his words are, and what love will cost both of them, body and soul.
This is how people become hardened, the world will beat you down, if you don’t know how to rise. No one escapes the pain loving brings, and maybe Birddog isn’t so different from her mother after-all.
Let the Willows Weep is about poverty, love, intolerance, shame, racism and family dysfunction. Rage is a circle that even the wisest who wish to escape can become trapped in. How is one to hope when life just keeps bringing you nothing but grief and loss? Love takes such strange shapes, it gives and takes indiscriminately in this sad tale. For those who love southern fiction with enough grit to make your eyes water.
Published October 2019